I am quite certain at this exact moment wonderful aromas from your homes and kitchens are drifting downwind through your quiet streets and quaint neighborhoods. I would wager that the youngsters playing rough house pause from their endeavors and lift their noses into the wind picking up the scents of what is to adorn your tables with the upcoming feast. This is probably one of the few times of the year when children are more than willing to stop what they are doing and race to the dining rooms for Thanksgiving, is here. The vast assortment of dishes and delights is equal to none from the early appetizers of pickled okra and mimosas to the gradual build-up of casseroles, potatoes, and pies, culminating with what many of us associate Thanksgiving with, the baked turkey.
We associate the tradition of serving this upland game bird at Thanksgiving back to the Pilgrims celebrating the bountiful harvest in 1621 after their first year of hardships through the winter of 1620. From a literary standpoint and to not buck tradition, I will continue this celebration of the feast with this bird being center stage but I do have to bring up what may be surprising to you. Here goes.
History indicates that the Wild Turkey may not have actually been one of the staples of this magnificent first feast. Now remember, we are still going to keep this bird on our tables no matter what but it is more likely that wild ducks and geese along with venison were the main courses. You may ask, how is this so? It seems that Gov. William Bradley sent men “fowling” to harvest ducks and geese as part of their feast. Why we associate this bird, the turkey, as part of the feast is the term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl. Are you surprised? I certainly am.
The Wild Turkey, (Meleagris gallopavo), is an upland bird native to North America. It is the same species as the domesticated turkey but this is the only similarity between the two birds. The best analogy I have ever heard comparing the Wild Turkey to our barnyard version came from the legendary Tom Kelly in his book “The Tenth Legion.” In his words he describes this bird as a resident of the deep woods with a remarkable sense of hearing and sense of eyesight even better. A bird that hatched in May will approach 10 pounds by fall and can explode into flight at speeds greater than 45 miles per hour. Tall in stature with a long neck and legs, it bears the same resemblance to our domesticated turkey as I do to Jack Dempsey in his prime.” No one could describe this bird more accurately or eloquently than Mr. Kelly.
Though our “butterballs” are simply delicious, they are not grown naturally as our wild turkey is. Insects, acorns, beggar lice, and huckleberries are just a few of the food sources of this upland gamebird. I will admit, the butterballs are gorgeous when they come out of the oven and are placed upon the platter with decorative cranberries, chestnuts, and apples surrounding them. In my opinion though, the taste of the wild turkey is far better than what we un-wrap and bake. Now I may be partial because of the experience that goes along with bringing this delicacy to our Thanksgiving table, but even my mother agreed with me regarding this. In fact, most Thanksgivings she would prepare a “store bought” bird and a wild one. The reddish color from the wild bird was noticeably different from the other and the real difference to me is how moist the wild bird is compartively. It was pretty special when she pointed to the wild one and said to me, “this one’s yours.” It was time to dive in.
Now regardless if our first Thanksgiving table was primarily made up of mallards, gadwall, canvasbacks, or tenderloin, we will still celebrate our centerpiece with the presence of a 20-pound bird that we all stand in awe of. Add more to your dining experience by engaging in conversation of what the first feast could have been like. Add some wild nuts and berries to your table to enhance the experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a wild bird in your freezer, I invite you to prepare both for your families to compare. I assure you, any leftovers will make great turkey sandwiches and turkey salad for days to follow.
Enjoy Thanksgiving with your families and reflect on how fortunate we are to live where we can freely celebrate and enjoy “the best time of the year.” The bucks in the Panhandle of Texas have called us but hopefully we are back by the time you are reading this so that we too will be able to “carve” what defines our tables.
Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave it better than we found it. Happy Thanksgiving!